All Meaning Would Vanish

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Po Bronson suggests a Twilight Zone-type premise:

What if surgeons never got to work on humans, they were instead just endlessly in training, cutting up cadavers? What if the same went for all adults – we only got to practice at simulated versions of our jobs? Lawyers only got to argue mock cases, for years and years. Plumbers only got to fix fake leaks in classrooms. Teachers only got to teach to videocameras, endlessly rehearsing for some far off future. Book writers like me never saw our work put out to the public – our novels sat in drawers. Scientists never got to do original experiments; they only got to recreate scientific experiments of yesteryear. And so on.

Rather quickly, all meaning would vanish from our work. Even if we enjoyed the activity of our job, intrinsically, it would rapidly lose depth and relevance. It’d lose purpose. We’d become bored, lethargic, and disengaged.

In other words, we’d turn into teenagers.

In Escaping the Endless Adolescence, Joe Allen argues that our urge to protect teenagers from real life – because they’re not ready yet – has tragically backfired:

By insulating them from adult-like work, adult social relationships, and adult consequences, we have only delayed their development. We have made it harder for them to grow up. Maybe even made it impossible to grow up on time.

Basically, we long ago decided that teens ought to be in school, not in the labor force. Education was their future. But the structure of schools is endlessly repetitive. “From a Martian’s perspective, high schools look virtually the same as sixth grade,” said Allen. “There’s no recognition, in the structure of school, that these are very different people with different capabilities.” Strapped to desks for 13+ years, school becomes both incredibly montonous, artificial, and cookie-cutter.

As Allen writes, “We place kids in schools together with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other kids typically from similar economic and cultural backgrounds. We group them all within a year or so of one another in age. We equip them with similar gadgets, expose them to the same TV shows, lessons, and sports. We ask them all to take almost the exact same courses and do the exact same work and be graded relative to one another. We give them only a handful of ways in which they can meaningfully demonstrate their competencies. And then we’re surprised they have some difficulty establishing a sense of their own individuality.”

And we wonder why it’s taking so long for them to mature.

Paul Graham made a similar point in explaining why nerds are unpopular in high school — but not so much before or after:

I think the important thing about the real world is not that it’s populated by adults, but that it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.

In fact, all the evidence that teenagers have “raging hormones” or other intrinsic problems is modern:

I’m suspicious of this theory that thirteen-year-old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it’s physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I’ve read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course (Michelangelo had his nose broken by a bully), but they weren’t crazy.

As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they’re made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.


  1. David Foster says:

    Peter Drucker asserted that it is inherently vicious to evaluate people on their “potential” rather than on their performance. He was talking about corporate appraisal and promotion systems, but the same principle applies here. No matter how rigorous education is, it remains in a sense about potential rather than performance, since the outcomes do not matter in themselves but simply as indicators.

    Also ran across this quote from Antoine de St-Exupery yesterday:

    “A civilization is built on what is required of men, not on that which is provided for them”

  2. Aretae says:

    The book Against Adolescence makes the argument in full.

  3. Becky says:

    I just finished reading John Gatto’s (former NY teacher of the year who quit in an oped) “Weapons of Mass Instruction”, where he also makes the case against compulsory education as more of a way of controlling and keeping the masses inferior than of providing education.

  4. Aretae says:

    If you haven’t read Gatto — my favorite is The 7 lesson schoolteacher — you’re missing something.

  5. Superb. Gatto is superb, the book mentioned here also sounds superb. The case against child labor is vastly over-done. Many of our problems are cause by the combination of compulsory education and the ban against child labor. See also Thomas Hine, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, in which he shows that the categories known as “teenager” and “adolescent” are of recent vintage, and caused by compulsory high school, a relatively recent phenomenon (it was only in the 1930s that a majority of American teens attended high school). Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, and countless others began their work life around the age of 12 or 13. In traditional cultures, males and females went through a rite of passage at that age and then assumed adult roles and responsibilities. Our system of government-enforced immaturity creates vast pathologies that extend far beyond adolescence.

  6. Becky says:

    Aretae, thanks for the link. I haven’t read the 7 lesson schoolteacher, but will now. I first saw him on C-span and went out and got the book.

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